Tony Harrison 1937-
(Has also written as T. W. Harrison) English poet, translator, dramatist, and librettist.
The following entry provides an overview of Harrison's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 43.
Tony Harrison is considered a master of theatrical poetry and has been credited with keeping verse drama alive in the contemporary theater. He writes traditionally structured poetry in which he combines vernacular with classical language to explore the conflict between his working-class upbringing and his formal education and literary career. A central theme in Harrison's poetry is his alienation from his family, community, and social class, a consequence of his education and his abandonment of the less eloquent language of his ancestors. Yet Harrison is also concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes.
Harrison was born in Leeds in 1937 to a baker and his wife. He obtained a scholarship for his schooling at the prestigious Leeds Grammar School. Harrison then received a bachelor's degree in classics and a postgraduate degree in linguistics from Leeds University. The tension between his working-class home life and his middle-class education would later become a subject of his poetry. After completing his education, Harrison spent four years teaching in Nigeria and then a year in Prague. He has also spent considerable time in America, and his travel contributed to his focus on linguistics and culture in his poetry.
Harrison's collection, The Loiners (1970), uses rhymed verse and includes such diverse topics as his memories of growing up in Leeds and the wedding night of Ferdinand and Isabella. In From “The School of Eloquence” (1978) and Continuous (1981), Harrison employs a 16-line sonnet based on the form developed by George Meredith. Harrison usurps the tools of classical poetry but uses his own dialect, language, and subjects. The themes of these sonnets are human failure and injustice, but on a more specific level, they explore Harrison's personal anger about the suffering of his own family and class. Many of the sonnets deal with the conflict of the upper class trying to obliterate the language of the lower classes. In “Them & (uz)” Harrison recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English. Harrison views himself as the spokesman of the working class and the uneducated. Many of his poems address the conflict inherent in the separation from the very class of people he is trying to represent caused by his education and his use of the medium of poetry. “V.” (1990) is a long poem of rhyming quatrains which is modeled on Thomas Grey's “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” The poem is set during the miners' strike of 1984 and addresses the “versus” present in contemporary English society, including oppositions involving language and class, race and gender, and religion and politics. The Blasphemer's Banquet (1989) is written in support of Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, and is a critical commentary on Muslim bigotry specifically and fundamentalism in general. The poems in Harrison's Permanently Bard (1996) continue with the theme of the use of language in the struggle between the classes. It includes his “Wordlists” which contains a list of languages Harrison learned in school, losing his own language in the process.
Many reviewers point out Harrison's bleak vision and his anger at the dark side of human nature, including intolerance, duplicity, and cruelty. Most critics praise Harrison as one of the most gifted poets of the theater, but a few have asserted that his dramatic poetry is meant for performance and loses something in publication. Oswyn Murray stated, “Harrison's poetry has always been public poetry, immediately accessible and directed at an audience rather than at the solitary reader. His chief weakness as a poet, that he lacks the ability to speak in a private voice, is in the theatre his greatest strength. …” Many reviewers of Harrison's poetry laud its fusion of traditional forms with a contemporary political thrust. Carol Chillington Rutter summed up Harrison's faithfulness to classical drama, stating, “To keep faith with the theatre of Phrynichos and his heirs, and to make sure that that theatre survives into the next millennium, we must locate an ideological correlative that honours the political spirit of the ancient theatre.” Reviewers also discuss the tension present in Harrison's poetry between his working-class background and his use of classical forms. Bruce Woodcock asserts, “In his poetic invective, it's as if Harrison feels the need to give as good as he gets, to show himself both a proven poet and still one of the lads. It is from this kind of tension that the edge of his work often derives.”
Earthworks (poetry) 1964
Aikin Mata [adapter with James Simmons; from Aristophanes' Lysistrata] (drama) 1965
Newcastle Is Peru (poetry) 1969
The Loiners (poetry) 1970
The Misanthrope [translator and adapter; from Moliere's Le Misanthrope] (drama) 1973
Phaedra Britannica [translator and adapter; from Racine's Phedre] (drama) 1975
The Poems of Palladas [translator] (poetry) 1975
Bow Down (drama) 1977
The Passion (drama) 1977
The Bartered Bride [translator; based on the work by Bedrich Smetana] (libretto) 1978
From “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems (poetry) 1978
Continuous: Fifty Sonnets from “The School of Eloquence” (poetry) 1981
A Kumquat for John Keats (poetry) 1981
The Oresteia [translator and adapter; based on the work by Aeschylus] (drama) 1981
U.S. Martial (poetry) 1981
The Mysteries (drama) 1984
Selected Poems (poetry) 1984
The Blasphemers' Banquet [also rendered as The Blasphemer's Banquet ] (television play) 1989
V. and Other Poems (poetry and drama)...
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SOURCE: “Weeds and White Roses: The Poetry of Tony Harrison,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 26, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, 1984, pp. 157-63.
[In the following essay, Young asserts Harrison's skill as a poetic dramatist, but notes that, “His now established trade as writer for the theatre—including music-theatre—should not allow us to forget that originally he was, and is still, a poet of unique and disturbing character.”]
In 1929 the publishers J. M. Dent & Sons chose Baker and Miller's 1739 English translation of Molière's plays for their popular Everyman series because ‘it is thought to have more of the spirit of the original than would be found in a more modern version’ （Introduction p. xix）. Here is part of a speech from Le Misanthrope in this edition. Alcèste, the man-hater of the title, takes his coquettish mistress Célimène to task about another of her many men friends:
But, however, tell me, madam, by what chance your Clitander has the happiness to please you so much? Upon what fund of merit and sublime virtue do you ground the honour of your esteem? Is it by the long nail he has upon his little finger, that he has gained the great esteem with you, which we see him have? Did you surrender, with all the beau-monde, to the shining merit of his fair periwig? Or are they his large pantaloons, that make you in love with him?...
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SOURCE: “Poetry in Public,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4218, June 6, 1986, pp. 615-16.
[In the following review, Murray argues that Harrison's strength is in the public poetry of the theater and therefore better enjoyed in performance than in the solitary act of reading his Dramatic Verse 1973-1985.]
Every generation or so the rebirth of poetic drama is proclaimed; Tony Harrison （like myself） is just old enough to remember the excitement of the last renaissance, associated with the names of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. The plays of that period are not much revived; even in the case of Eliot they remain a minor part of a major poet's work. They seem to belong to an alien culture, to be the last fling of an even earlier renaissance in the Edwardian age, when verse drama was a major industry, and the verse translations of Gilbert Murray packed the West End theatres.
It is difficult to explain the fascination of such a generation of quiet-voiced poets with the theatre. The oddest thing is that it was Eliot's main aim in preparing for the stage to reduce the poetic element in verse and diction, “to find a rhythm close to contemporary speech, in which the stresses could be made to come wherever we should naturally put them, in uttering the particular phrase on the particular occasion; “it was important that passages should not call “too much attention to...
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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Parnassus, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1988, pp. 324-39.
[In the following excerpt, Wood argues that several contemporary British translations of Greek classics, including Harrison's Oresteia, “are claims, made through language, that Britain has history again, and that its troubles and divisions can be compared to those of other countries and ages.”]
“What's Hecuba to them?” we might ask, thinking of contemporary British poets translating the Greeks; of Irish and Yorkshire idioms attaching themselves to classical names and places. But the question doesn't have to be dismissive or sure of its answer. Tony Harrison's Oresteia （1981）, Tom Paulin's version of Antigone, called The Riot Act （1985）, are not simply old plays in modern linguistic dress; they are claims, made through language, that Britain has history again, that its troubles and divisions can be compared to those of other countries and ages.
Haven't we always had history? Of course. But the great conspiracy, running roughly from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until very recently, was that our history was a grand pageant, a decorous success story, something we boasted to Americans about and wheeled out for ceremonies. There was lots of it, but all in the past. It was not the turbulent stuff that other nations continued gracelessly to have. We had no...
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SOURCE: “Classical Vandalism: Tony Harrison's Invective,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 50-65.
[In the following essay, Woodcock discusses the anger found in Harrison's poetry and asserts that its source is Harrison's “own background … and ＼his］ sense of identity in relation to the marginalisation of working-class experience by dominant middle-class culture.”]
Tony Harrison's poetry grows more extraordinary year by year. His output is increasing dramatically, and he is getting angrier. For a practitioner of classically formal restraint, Harrison is very ready to occupy outspoken extremes of expression and opinion, as his recent productions testify. There was his long poem V. set during the miner's strike in 1984 and utilising an uncompromising invective which led Mary Whitehouse to call for it to be banned. There is his play for fifteen women about the Greenham peace camp, Common Chorus, which allows Harrison to re-launch his critique of men and masculinity which figured significantly in his ‘The School of Eloquence’ sequence. But most notably there is the recently broadcast The Blasphemer's Banquet, a courageous advocacy of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and currently in hiding under threat of death. Whereas V. took its model from Gray's ‘Elegy’, The Blasphemer's Banquet adopts the stanza form of...
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SOURCE: “Men, Women, and Tony Harrison's Sex-War Oresteia,” in Tony Harrison, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, pp. 295-302.
[In the following essay, Rutter examines the role of gender in Harrison's Oresteia.]
The Headmistress considered the splendidly wrapped Christmas present from the boy she'd harangued all term. ‘They don't carry grudges,’ she said. ‘Children don't carry grudges.’ Then corrected herself. ‘Boys don't. Girls—They're a bit iffy with grudges.’
I thought of Clytemnestra, stuck in Argos, ten years brooding on that grudge that turned to gall the organ that had started as her heart.
Girls carry grudges.
Because girls remember. Girls, the stay-at-home Penelopes at the loom, do-nothings （while men, the do-ers, sail off to do war, to do history） have inexhaustible time to brood on actions men forget as soon as They're accomplished. Like killing. Like war. Each invasion is such a surprise, such an adventure for frank, forgetful men, their bluff memories wiped clean of any war ever before. ‘Oh what a lovely slaughter!’ they crow. King Agamemnon
He swung the god-axe, Zeus the Avenger's, tore Troy's roots up, dug her earth over, her god-shrines shattered, her altars all gutted, fruitful earth...
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SOURCE: “Blasphemy and Death: On Film Making with Tony Harrison,” in Tony Harrison, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, pp. 384-94.
[Symes is a film editor, director, and producer for the BBC. In the following essay, he discusses working with Tony Harrison on the verse film The Blasphemers' Banquet ]
In 1936, delivering a lecture to the North London Film Society, W. H. Auden concluded that to enable poetry to work with film ‘there was a difficulty finding the right kind of support to enable such experiments to be carried out. It is financial support that is required for these experiments, without restriction on the director's independence of outlook either by commercial or departmental policy.’ This is certainly true, but he ignored the other vital part of the film/verse equation.
Possibly because what he was required to do at the GPO unit was to provide verse for existing film material, rather in the manner of a composer writing music, Auden failed to mention the necessity of writer and film team being able to work closely together. It may seem a truism, but it is remarkable how misunderstood is the process, even by insiders, and its success depends entirely on the closest of relationships developing between all parties engaged on the project. If the work is approached in a conventional way, with the writer relegated to a secondary position, the results will be at best...
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SOURCE: “Postmodern Classics: The Verse Drama of Tony Harrison,” in British and Irish Drama Since 1960, edited by James Acheson, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 202-26.
[In the following essay, Huk discusses Harrison's adaptations of classical drama and traces how the poet brings a new life and a contemporary edge to the Greek classics.]
To understand this, it becomes necessary to level the artistic structure of the Apollonian culture, as it were, stone by stone, till the foundations on which it rests become visible.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
Over the course of the last two decades Tony Harrison, the well-known British poet and classicist, has brought his poetry to full power on stage. His metrical arguments, which have always addressed social issues and audiences rather than isolated readers, find their perfect venue there, despite the fact that, as Derek Walcott recently put it, the very idea of metred verse drama has come to summon for most people ‘the beat of footfalls down a vacant corridor, a museum, a ruined colonnade’.1 Reversing those footsteps, Harrison's much-hailed successes in translating and contemporising classical verse drama have led him to invent what critics are now struggling to describe as his own unprecedented sort of politically radical,...
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SOURCE: “Person to Person: Relationships in the Poetry of Tony Harrison,” in Twentieth-Century Poetry: From Text to Context, edited by Peter Verdonk, Routledge, 1993, pp. 21-31.
[In the following essay, Widdowson analyzes how Harrison's use of pronouns in his “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems illustrates his ambivalent relationship to his parents.]
‘You weren't brought up to write such mucky books!’is the final line in italics of Tony Harrison's poem ‘Bringing Up’. It refers to what his mother said when he showed her his first volume The Loiners, and it epitomizes the social dislocation of a working-class boy who won a scholarship to Leeds Grammar School and subsequently graduated in Classics.
In this chapter Henry Widdowson demonstrates in a sensitive reading that the way in which the grammatical categories of person （first, second, and third） are distributed across Harrison's poem ‘Long Distance II’ throws into relief its basic theme of estrangement; of loss of contact, person to person.
Widdowson points to a significant distinction between the pronouns of the first and second person （I and you） on the one hand and those of the third person on the other （he, she, they）: the former are terms of address used to talk to people, while...
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Economist （review date 23 January 1993）
SOURCE: “A Bleeding Poet,” in Economist, Vol. 326, No. 7795, January 23, 1993, p. 83.
[In the following review, the critic praises Harrison as “one of today's most unusual writing talents.”]
For the first time in almost a decade, an English poet stands a good chance of winning the Whitbread prize, the literary award that ranks second only to the Booker in popular esteem in Britain. Unlike the Booker shortlist, which is confined to novelists, the Whitbread shortlist takes in writers of different categories of books—first novel, children's book, biography and so on.
The poet is Tony Harrison, and if he wins on January 26th it will represent deserved public acclaim for one of today's most unusual writing talents. Much of his poetry is written not for the printed page but for the theatre and television. And he is a writer who concentrates on public themes. One example is the dehumanising effects of war, in his television poem The Gaze of the Gorgon （his Whitbread collection）; another is man's capacity to misuse scientific discoveries, in a poem for the theatre, Square Rounds. Asked why he is so interested in public poetry, he replies:
When I was growing up in the 1950s, poets seemed too concerned to explore their own consciousness. The range of dramatic...
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SOURCE: A review of Square Rounds, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, October, 1993, pp. 380-81.
[In the following review, Lapenta criticizes the inflated writing of Harrison's Square Rounds but admires the imaginative staging of the production.]
The dividing line between stimulating political theatre and self-indulgent preaching is a fine one. Poet/director Tony Harrison's new theatre piece Square Rounds totters precariously on this thin border, threatening at any moment to topple into pretentiousness. Driven by a simplistic anti-war theme with a form which sometimes resembles an informative lecture more than a play, Square Rounds is often repetitive and frustrating. But just when Harrison the playwright can be dismissed for his inflated sense of the piece's importance, Harrison the director rescues it with striking, imaginative staging.
The corruption of beneficial scientific developments into weapons of mass destruction is the subject of Square Rounds. Harrison's vehicle for this theme is several scientists and inventors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who generated humanitarian advances as well as World War I's most fearsome weapons. The principal characters represent these two warring factions. American Sir Hiriam Walker invented both his self-styled “pipe of peace,” a medicinal inhaler which provided temporary relief for...
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SOURCE: “‘These Vs Are All the Versuses of Life’: A Reading of Tony Harrison's Social Elegy V.,” in In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, edited by C. C. Barfoot, Rodopi, 1994, pp. 79-94.
[In the following essay, Haberkamm provides an in-depth analysis of Harrison's V. and describes it as “a contemporary elegy, a public poem, which opens up to its social context without dispensing with private grief and ruminations.”]
Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting.1
Although he began as a Tyneside poet, publishing his first collection The Loiners,2 as early as 1970, Tony Harrison's present popularity is based on his achievements as a playwright （The Misanthrope, The Oresteia, The Mysteries）, mainly for the National Theatre,3 as a librettist for the Metropolitan Opera in New York （The Bartered Bride and Medea : a sex-war opera）, as a translator of classical texts and French plays, and as the narrator on TV of his own works.4 In the autumn of 1987 his name hit the newspaper headlines after a film version of his long poem V. was broadcast on Channel Four, arousing a wave of criticism over his use of abusive vocabulary. Right from the start, Harrison has been an eminently political and socially committed writer.5 In the...
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SOURCE: “Dead Men's Mouths,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4819, August 11, 1995, p. 18.
[In the following review, Imlah posits that Harrison's take on the horror of Hiroshima is somewhat strained, yet still “casts its dark imprint firmly on the mind.”]
From the vandalized gravestones in Leeds of V. (1986, through the many cemeteries visited in the four-part Loving Memory (1987), with its quatrains modelled on Gray's “Elegy”, to the “Bradford Tomb” in The Blasphemer's Banquet (1989), places of burial and markers of the dead have been at the centre of Tony Harrison's “film/poems” for television. Now Hiroshima offers him its awful variant (and a relative for the charred, upright corpse in his Gulf War poem, A Cold Coming): the “shadow” of a man, printed on the stone steps of a bank by the blast that vaporized him, and now cased in the Peace Memorial Museum. It is this unidentifiable “Shadow San”, released by the poet for “a day's parole”, who acts as his guide to the city as it prepares to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its destruction—though Harrison, who for the first time has directed a film as well a providing the commentary, uses footage shot on the forty-ninth.
As you would expect from Harrison, the dead condition of Shadow San is sharply conceived: he is speaking out now because, literally and ironically fading...
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SOURCE: “Permanently Barred,” in American Book Review, Vol. 17, No. 5, June-July, 1996, p. 23.
[In the following review, Latanté complains that Harrison's work is not easily found in American bookstores, but that his collections Permanently Bard and The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems “are worth seeking out.”]
Imagine for a moment a country in which a learned poet—past president of the Classics guild, no less—commands an audience for serious verse not only in the print media, in which a vigorously oppositional long poem appears in a major daily during a popular war, but also on TV, where a series of innovative hybrids pioneer a new genre, stir controversy, and provoke debate. This country, however, is not America, though we do talk a good game of poetry renaissance: “From cyber-savvy Californians to the word-slamming iconoclasts of New York's Nuyorican Poets cafe, from rappers and rockers to college professors, cowboys and school children, an eclectic new breed of poet is loose in the land” （press release for the PBS series “The United States of Poetry”）. But the fact is that none of PBS's sideshow bards （not even Jimmy Carter） will have a public impact through the medium of verse. My imaginary land in comparison sounds like a poetic paradise. But it's not; it's in England, now.
While there are, as far as I can tell from haunting the...
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SOURCE: “The Drunken Porter Does Poetry: Metre and Voice in the Poems of Tony Harrison,” in Tony Harrison: Loiner, edited by Sandie Byrne, Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 161-70.
[In the following essay, Crucefix discusses the importance of formal meter and speech to Harrison's poetry.]
Harrison's first full collection, entitled The Loiners after the inhabitants of his native Leeds, was published in 1970 and contained this limerick:
There was a young man of Leeds Who swallowed a packet of seeds. A pure white rose grew out of his nose And his arse was covered in weeds.(1)
Without losing sight of the essential comedy of this snatch, it can be seen as suggestive of aspects of Harrison's career. For example, the comic inappropriateness of the Leeds boy swallowing some seeds becomes the poet's own ironic image of his classical grammar school education. As a result of this, in a deliberately grotesque image, arose the growth of the white rose of poetry—from the boy's nose, of course, since Harrison in the same volume gave credence to the idea that the true poet is born without a mouth.2 The bizarrely contrasting weed-covered arse owes less to the intake of seeds （rose seeds wherever transplanted will never yield weeds） than to the harsh conditions Harrison premises in the Loiner's life, as indicated in an early introduction to...
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SOURCE: “In the Canon's Mouth: Tony Harrison and Twentieth-Century Poetry,” in Tony Harrison: Loiner, edited by Sandie Byrne, Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 189-99.
[In the following essay, Forbes argues that Harrison has more in common with eighteenth-century poetic models than his twentieth-century contemporaries.]
There has been surprisingly little discussion of Tony Harrison's poetics, as opposed to his subject-matter. The crossing of his classical education with his background has mesmerized many into thinking that's all there is to it. Douglas Dunn, a poet with whom Harrison has occasionally been linked to form a notional school （tagged ‘Barbarians’ after Dunn's book of the name, or ‘Rhubarbarians’, after Harrison's poem）, has briefly considered Harrison's poetry on several occasions.
＼H］is style is reminiscent of the sub-classical manner of Thomas Gray. Historically alert readers might also sense the pre-Augustan clarity of Dryden, or the varied urbanities of Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, Ovid and Martial.1
The pedal he presses consistently results in verse that could be called sub-classical, encrusted with Northern vernacular, sometimes demotic, but never populist ＼…］2
It is significant, and I believe correct, that Dunn doesn't seek to place...
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SOURCE: A review of Permanently Bard: Selected Poetry, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 157.
[In the following review, Kaiser asserts that class and language are the predominant themes in the poems of Harrison's Permanently Bard.]
With its detailed introduction and extensive notes, Permanently Bard, a selection of Tony Harrison's poetry designed for Britain's A-level students, provides an accessible overview of Harrison's poetry for any reader unfamiliar with his work. Comprising fourteen volumes of verse, twelve plays and libretti, and three television plays, Harrison's output is prodigious, but his work is much better known in Britain than elsewhere. This is perhaps because Harrison is a distinctly British poet, one whose central poetic concern is with a distinctly British problem.
Harrison's poetry, whether autobiographical or dramatic, circles around the issue of class and language. He explores how accent, slang, and jargon define class status and mark out the territory of power in Britain. Many of Harrison's shorter poems deal with his progress from working-class Yorkshire beginnings to the elitist world of the classics scholar, along the way gaining the languages of the literate but losing his ability to speak to his parents in their own vocabulary. In “Wordlists” Harrison concludes, after cataloguing the languages he learned in...
(The entire section is 676 words.)
SOURCE: “Harrison, Herakles, and Wailing Women: ‘Labourers’ at Delphi,” in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 13, May, 1997, pp. 133-43.
[In the following essay, Rutter analyzes Harrison's The Labourers of Herakles and asserts that “To this female spectator in the audience Harrison's theatrical practice seems progressively at odds with his official profeminism.”]
As well as being a widely published poet, Tony Harrison is well known as a dramatist for his reworkings of classical materials, from ancient Greek to medieval. When he was invited to contribute a play for the eighth International Meeting on Ancient Greek Drama, on the theme of ‘Crossing Millennia’, to be held at the European Cultural Centre of Delphi in August 1995, he chose to present a version of The Labourers of Herakles set on a building site—a building site the Greek sponsors specially ‘constructed’ for the event. In describing the single performance of the play, Carol Chillington Rutter, who teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, vividly evokes the theatrical forcefulness of the occasion: but she questions what she considers the ambivalence of Harrison's theatre work in its presentation and treatment of women—of which the decision to visualize the chorus of women in Labourers as cement mixers was most strikingly...
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